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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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October 2010 Archives

On Culloden Moor

It was October in Scotland, on a rare sunny day two years ago, and a friend and I set out to drive north toward Inverness. The first sign that something was wrong came when we passed the preserved ruin of Urquhart Castle above Loch Ness.

I insisted we stop, and my friend went along with that, but he didn't want to get out and look at it.

I've known him since we were 19, and up till then he'd been an indefatigable world traveler. We'd often traveled together over the intervening 40-odd years since we were students at the U, and this worried me. He just said he'd seen enough castles.

Farther on, we neared the historic battlefield of Culloden Moor, and I lobbied hard to see it. Not everybody is into battlefields, I grant you - but this one marks a major turning point in Scottish history.

It's where English troops defeated Bonnie Prince Charlie's Jacobites - most of them Highlanders - in 1746, ending The Jacobite Rising and dashing Highland hopes for restoring a Scottish king to the throne. More than 1,000 were killed on the Jacobite side, compared to about 50 English soldiers, and the old clan system was effectively broken.

I'd visited Culloden decades before, but then it was part of a forest preserve, and fir trees covered the site, so while you could find markers for the Highlanders' mass graves, you couldn't get a sense of the land itself.

Now Culloden was a national historic park, with a brand-new visitors' center and museum. The moor had been cleared of trees, and the battle lines had been marked out with flags - red for the English, blue for the Jacobites.

I said we absolutely had to stop. Okay, but....

My friend said he'd rather just sit in the museum's café, have a cup of tea and write postcards. This worried me even more, but there was no budging him. So I went through the beautifully done exhibits and joined a tour of the battlefield itself, led by a park volunteer clad head-to-toe in Highland plaid.

The day was still bright, but the wind had turned cold, and I tramped uncomfortably behind the guide, listening to the story of the battle while carrying on my own inner conversation.

What had happened to my old friend? Why this change? Was he ill? Or had his passion for travel simply died out? And if it happened to him, would it happen to me too?

When I got back, still shivering from the sharp Scots air, my friend met me. He'd perked up enough to tour the museum himself, he said, but he wasn't about to go outside, unless it was to get back in the car.

"What did you learn out there?'' he wondered.

"How it felt,'' I said, amazed that he wouldn't know.

The trip proceeded pretty well after that, but curiosity clearly wasn't along for the ride, and I stayed worried.

Only months later did I realize what must have been going on. When we went to Scotland that fall, my friend was on the verge of retiring from a long and very successful career as a college professor and administrator. His academic work had dovetailed with his own hard-wired wanderlust and had taken him all over the world. He must have been worried too.

We all are, whether we admit it or not, when we stand on that threshold. Happily, in my friend's case, it was only a momentary stall: His energy quickly rebounded, and he's been hitting the road with so much energy that I'm jealous.

In fact, he's spent most of the last six months wandering all over Europe, from Scandinavia to Greece, and has a trip planned to southeast Asia for this winter. Clearly, he won his own battle on Culloden Moor.